Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills along with sensory issues. With the May 2013 publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, all autism disorders were merged into one umbrella diagnosis of ASD. Previously, they were recognized as distinct subtypes, including autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome.
1 in 68 children in the United States have been diagnosed with autism. Children with autism often experience the world around them differently. Sensory problems (such as hyper- sensitivity or hypo-sensitivity) can cause difficulties in adapting to the environment. Loud noises, strong smells, bright lights, hot and cold sensations
Stimming repetitive motions or sounds used to self-sooth during stressful situations. (swaying, fidgeting, spinning, jumping, bouncing, vocalizations, etc.) Placing hands over ears Extreme reaction to touch or loud noises Running and wandering Unresponsive to verbal commands Problems with recognizing social cues Have a hard time expressing needs and wants Easily overwhelmed
Often anxious of entering uncontrolled or new environments Experience worry of “judgment” from others Worry that their children are a “burden” to others Embarrassment when their child(ren) acts-out or experiences a meltdown around others Sometimes feels isolated
Why parents of children with autism feel they can/cannot become part of a church or faith community.
Ideas and resources on how to become a welcoming community of faith to special-needs families.
Parents of children with autism often feel “pitied” or “patronized” “They’ll be OK” is not reassuring! Listen – many parents sometimes just need a friendly ear. Oftentimes help is needed, but parents may be afraid to ask. It’s OK to ask the parent if they need help with something.
Publish monthly articles in your newsletter. Give Sunday School teachers resources on how to handle children with autism and other special needs children. There are many groups and organizations that provide free training. Provide autism information brochures or bulletin inserts for members
Reach out to families with special needs. Offer to allow the families to bring their children to the building during quiet times. (during the week) Be sure to ask if the families have concerns or special requirements. Special diets, avoiding triggers, using sensory toys, using visual cues (PECS storyboards) Reassure families that they are always welcome!
Be aware of noise from music, organ, choirs, sound systems can overstimulate. Provide sound-reducing headphone to help with noises If possible, create a “cry room” or other quiet space that includes a volume-controlled audio feed of worship Be aware of smells from flowers and candles. Changes in décor.
Crowded spaces: special worship services (Christmas, Easter, large rooms, lobbies, etc.) Routine: provide a “regular” seat or location for families, if requested. Routine: changes in worship orders can cause anxiety Using props (especially noisy!) during children’s moments/worships.
The best tool a parent of children with autism can have is preparation: A simple heads-up on changes in worship, decorations, or the use of louder or unusual sounds can make the world of difference in how children with autism react to certain situation and stimuli.
Provide basic sensory toys in the nursery or education areas stress balls, weighted lap pads, various textures Be aware of extreme over stimulating areas of the church sights, sounds, smells, crowds, etc. Provide a space for parents to take their children if they need a “sensory break.” a simple, quiet room is best for this!
This prevents many parents of children with autism from attending church regularly. Do a “safety audit” – make sure basic child safety guidelines are being observed Keep outside doors closed – especially those leading to parking lots or streets. An adult needs to be with autistic children at all times – unless otherwise specified by a parent.
Routine is key! Give prompts (“5 minutes left!” “2 minutes until it’s time to put away the craft.”) Visual timers are also a great way to keep children with autism on-task. Ask parents for routines and methods used at home or school. Have “breaks” or “calm-down” space available.
Some children with autism may need one-to- one assistance. Many organizations have programs available to train volunteers, Sunday School teachers, and staff on how to manage and assist a child with autism. Always include children with autism in regular class activities, when possible. Provide a “reserved” seat for children with autism to help encourage routine.
Again, the best tool a parent of children with autism can have is preparation: A simple heads-up on changes in Sunday school routine, redecorated or refurnished rooms, new room assignments, and new curriculum can make a big difference in how a child with autism reacts to new situations.
Quiet spaces, simple, comfortable No bright colors or patterns or murals Controllable lighting: dimmers, soft Provide sensory toys and ways parents can help calm children that are overstimulated tunnels, bean bags, rocking chairs, manipulative objects, swing, lap pad, weighted blankets Provide a volume-controlled audio feed from the worship so parents don’t feel “left out” of the experience.
Autism Society of Indiana www.autismsocietyofindiana.org “Allies” are a great resource on education and how to start the process of your congregation becoming special-needs friendly. www.autismsocietyofindiana.org Easter Seals Crossroads www.eastersealscrossroads.org Respite: giving caretakers breaks. “Parent's Day Out” www.eastersealscrossroads.org Autism Speaks www.autismspeaks.org General information and national/local advocacy as well as information for faith-based organizations. www.autismspeaks.org Local Autism Support Groups